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Rebuilding Trust with Your Community

May 15, 2020 by Dr. Melanie Oppor and Jody Andres in School Business Affairs

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 School Business Affairs magazine and is reposted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.






Wisconsin's small, rural school district of Manawa was in trouble. With approximately 700 elementary and secondary students housed in two buildings urgently in need of repair, the school district lacked community support necessary to pass a referendum for funding.

A new administration was challenged to rebuild community trust and relationships that would persuade voters to approve proposed referendums.

Rebuilding Trust
In search of solutions, the Manawa school board members in 2017 attended a conference that included a presentation by David Horsager, CEO of Trust Edge Leadership Institute, and the author of several books on the subject of trust. Horsager's message made the board members realize that building trust was the first step in restoring their relationship with the community. 

Choosing to focus on Horsager's The Trust Edge, the school board and administrative team sought to define goals and find solutions based on three aspects of the book: clarity, connections, and consistency.

Based on clearly communicated information, the district appealed to the community to trust in new relationships and connections that would lead to a common goal. In the meantime, it was important that the district remain faithfully meticulous in performing even small tasks and responsibilities if it was to restore trust.

Process of Improvement
Rebuilding broken bonds wouldn't be enough to establish trust; the district would also need to deliver strong educational progress, which it attempted in a three-year association with Cooperative Educational Service Agency 6 trainers. The strategy, based on the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Six Core Principles of Improvement, includes:

1. Focus on the root cause with a problem-specific, user-centered approach.
2. Identify what works for whom and under what conditions.
3. Gain an understanding of the systems that produce desired outcomes.'
4. Embed measurable outcomes and processes to track results.
5. Anchor improvement in disciplined inquiry. Based on rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Act, failure is not a problem; failure to learn is a problem. Learn fast, fail fast, improve quickly.
6. Accelerate improvement through self-discipline, collaboration, and accepting the wisdom of others.
7. Resolve to improve.

With a roadmap for trust expressed in common language, the district had a framework from which to work, but it needed the right partner to help it improve the school facilities.

Choosing the Right Partner
While highly effective communication is critical in any construction or remodeling project, the relationship between the planning, design, and construction personnel and the school district proved to be critical for success in the Manawa undertaking. In an environment that had a history of distrust, clear communication moved to the top of the priority list.

Communication was enhanced by following these steps:

  • Weekly project status meetings between the district administrator and the business manager ensured that key decisions were made and communicated to all district staff in a timely fashion.
  • Community bulletins for use on the district's website and social media platforms helped to inform the public about project progress.
  • Focus group meetings with key stakeholders were held to ensure the finished project was what the district, staff, and community wanted and expected.
  • Daily onsite personnel overseeing contractors' progress and addressing emerging issues ensured there were no surprise and that changes were promptly shared with school personnel.
  • Collaborative study between the school district and facility planners allowed the district to further the trust work with staff and the community by applying the same strategies and using common, clear language.

An example of the power of communication came from a constituent when the district did the first listening sessions and its initial survey on perceptions of the school. One attendee stated, "No one has ever asked our opinion before."

That was a profound statement as this board and administrative team wouldn't think of proceeding without asking for stakeholder input. That doesn't mean that everyone gets what they want but it does broaden the perspective and understanding so that the best possible decision can be made.

Becoming True Partners
A more trusting, cooperative working relationship with stakeholders allowed Manawa School District to move forward on improvements with emphasis on building repair and upgrades. Construction would be based on study, pre-referendum preparation, conducting the referendum, designing the project, and construction itself.

In one of the first meetings held, all parties (the project design team, the school board, the district administrator, and the business manager) established how decisions made by the district would be conveyed to the project team and who was authorized to make decisions. The Manawa group, minus the school board, met weekly to go over questions or issues as they emerged. The board of education received weekly written briefs on project progress and key decisions. 

In the development phase, design personnel met with district stakeholders from various departments to hear input from the facility users and to verify that the designs as drawn fit the needs of the stakeholders. These meetings continued into the implementation/build phase to confirm all aspects of the construction. Examples included how to number the lockers and where to place specific pieces of furniture or equipment to ensure that data and electrical connections were properly placed for optimal usage. 

This interaction provided opportunities for stakeholders to voice concerns and to ensure student learning environments were optimized and that support staff had work environments that are both practical and functional. 

Additionally, the district and the project team developed an Add Alternate Options list that included projects or upgrades to the referendum that did not fit within the $12 million budget but might be possible to fund through investment earnings or unused contingency dollars.

The criteria defined the prioritization for pursuing: impact on learning, infrastructure, health and safety, and cost. Ideally, the Manawa district would have pursued a $20 million referendum, but the data on community tax tolerance did not support a figure that high.

Rebuild and Restore
Ultimately, the Manawa School District was able to pass two referenda. The first was a $12 million capital improvement plan that will enhance the learning environment at both the elementary and the middle/high school campuses for years to come. The second was a one-year non-recurring operational referendum to tear down an unused building on adjoining property  and return the land to green space until the district defines future construction needs.

The district leaders and the design team came together to achieve success for the school district. Trust was rebuilt and schools were too!


Dr. Melanie Oppor is the district administrator for the School District of Manawa in Wisconsin. Email: moppor@manawaschools.org

Jody Andres is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. Email: jandres@hoffman.net

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